NC Courts Celebration Finds A Champion in Judge Robert Rader
By Russell Rawlings
“Most of these people don’t seek out the spotlight; they do what they do because they’re dedicated to the work and the administration of justice. They’re really more focused on doing the work and doing a good job as judge instead of the politics of it, which most of them don’t like.”
In describing his fellow District Court judges and their reluctance to engage in a celebration that would draw attention to themselves, Robert Rader could have just as easily been describing himself.
But the 50th anniversary of the establishment of North Carolina’s District Court system is a milestone worthy of celebration, and the chief District Court judge for the 10th Judicial District (Wake County) has made sure it was done right.
“I have always had a bit of an interest in history and historic preservation,” said Rader from his 10th story chambers in the Wake County Justice Center. “And I really am dedicated to the court system.”
His commitment to historic preservation is perhaps best demonstrated by his involvement in the Yates Mill Associates, Inc., a private non-profit corporation that preserved Wake County’s last surviving grist mill (circa 1756) and established Historic Yates Mill County Park.
Rader is a founding member of the corporation and served for 18 years as its president. He is also a former chair of the Raleigh Historic Districts Commission and the Raleigh Historic Properties Commission.
As for his dedication to the court system, one need look no further than his role in the planning and implementation of the new Wake County Justice Center.
“That whole planning process took many years,” Rader said. “When Judge Joyce Hamilton was still chief judge, she asked me to take a role in the construction planning and design process, which I did, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. We managed to complete the 577,000 sq. ft. state-of-the-art building months ahead of schedule and 30 million dollars below budget.”
“From the very beginning we felt as though we needed to devote a significant amount of time on the front end to the planning and design process to make the Justice Center as functional as we could.”
For those reasons and many more, Rader has spearheaded the ongoing statewide celebration of the District Court system, which was phased in over three election cycles in 1966, 1968 and 1970. The celebration effort began with a phone call from Rader to Judge William Hamby, when the latter was serving as president of the N.C. Association of District Court Judges.
“A few years ago I realized that we were approaching the 50th anniversary,” Rader said. “I didn’t want that to slip by.”
The conversation resulted in the formation of a committee, which Hamby asked Rader to chair.
“Upon my request,” Hamby said, “Judge Rader generously agreed to head up a committee to plan statewide and local celebrations for the District Court 50th anniversary. Judge Rader and the committee have done an amazing job in coordinating the celebration efforts.”
“We got started in May 2015,” Rader said, “and developed a strategic plan so that we would have a road map of things that we wanted to accomplish. We had brainstorming sessions; everybody had great ideas.
“I think it was Judge Joe Buckner who said one of the things he had learned from doing other projects is we have to be careful to not try to do too much, because if you do you can end up getting nothing done. We wanted to be realistic in what we could accomplish and not become overwhelmed.”
“We tried to be realistic and not take on too much; at the same time, we made a list of things we thought were feasible to accomplish, developed a timeline, and assigned people who would be accountable for making those things happen.”
Meanwhile, Rader continues, talks were taking place in Raleigh regarding a broader plan to also commemorate milestone anniversaries of the Unified Court System, the Administrative Office of the Courts, Superior Court, the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court.
“Judge (Linda) McGee (chief judge, N.C. Court of Appeals), Christy Roeder (then clerk, N.C. Supreme Court), Justice (Bob) Edmunds, me and several others started meeting for breakfast and talking about a method for coordinating all of the celebrations, not just District Court. That is how the Celebrate N.C. Courts Committee came about.”
Rader has been a prominent figure in the collaborative effort, which featured a leading role for the District Court anniversary at the recent annual meeting and dinner of the N.C. Supreme Court Historical Society. The focal point of the District Court effort, however, has been local events coordinated by the state’s various judicial districts.
“At first we were not sure how many people we would actually be able to get motivated to do these events across the state.” Rader said. “In talking with the Chief Justice and Judge McGee, we were hopeful that 50 percent of the judicial districts would host some type of celebratory or educational event. The plan was to encourage as many as possible.”
“I focused on getting in touch with the Board of Governors of the N.C.Bar Association, the State Bar councilors, and our chief District Court judges back in January. I made a push and urged them to get involved, and stayed focused on the chief judges urging them to do something locally.”
The local push has paid off. Approximately 75 percent of the state’s judicial districts have either conducted or scheduled an event, while a few districts are waiting until their courts reach the actual 50-year mark.
“Almost all the districts that have had them have reported back and said what a wonderful event it was,” Rader said. “The events have varied from a Boy Scout merit badge court session for multiple counties focused on law and the courts, to dinners to luncheons to special ceremonial sessions of court.”
“It has been a little bit of everything. The feedback we’ve gotten has been fantastic.”
Rader, who served as president of the N.C. Association of District Court Judges in 2012-13, has been impressed with the response of his peers.
“When you ask a chief District Court judge to plan an event, a lot of them are not event planners,” Rader said. “Most of them have more than they can handle on their plate already. For many, event planning is just not their cup of tea at all. We strongly urged them if it wasn’t to find someone else. And they have felt committed enough to do it or get people in their districts to do it.
“Overall it has been a fantastic experience. If you go to CelebrateNCCourts.com website, you will find photos and coverage from many of the events. You will also find numerous historic documents, publications and information related to the creation of District Court and the unified court system. Our hope is to have coverage of all the local events as we receive information and photos. Some even have videos. It is good stuff.”
Rader grew up in Morganton, where he and Justice Sam Ervin IV were high school classmates and where Judge Sam Ervin III of the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was a regular in his father’s restaurant.
“My interests were architecture and law,” Rader said, “not necessarily in that order. I became more interested in the law from spending time in my father’s restaurant. He ran a restaurant for most of his life. It was called Gene’s, which was his name. It was a barbecue restaurant, your typical ‘meat and three’ – a cross between The Pit and Big Ed’s.
“I worked there during the summers with dad, which was wonderful experience because you learn a great deal about how to interact with the public, which I think is an invaluable asset. A lot of the lawyers and judges ate at my father’s restaurant daily.”
The regulars included Judge Ervin and local legal icons such as H.J. “Doggie” Hatcher, Claude Sitton, John Ervin, Bob Byrd and his brother, Joe Byrd.
“They would come in there for lunch on a regular basis,” Rader continued, “and many times they would bring in visiting Superior Court judges, attorneys from other counties and various court personnel. I always thoroughly enjoyed talking with the lawyers. While they all claimed to be just small town lawyers, I knew they were accomplished attorneys, highly respected in their profession and community, and incredibly gifted raconteurs.”
“They would have the funniest stories, they drove the nicest cars, they had the best jokes; I thought that seems like a good way to go.”
One attorney in particular stands out in Rader’s memory.
“Robert Bond Byrd was just a unique individual,” Rader said. “To call him a community leader would be an understatement. Everybody respected Bob; everybody felt like Bob and his brother Joe were two of the best lawyers in the western part of the state.
“Bob was an outstanding individual and had an incredible ability to relate to people. He was very outgoing, well respected, and I think he was sort of my mentor. He was the one I talked to about law school and got advice from on many issues. He’s probably the reason why I’m a lawyer.”
Rader graduated from N.C. State University in 1978 and spent the first three and a half years of his career working on the staff of Gov. Hunt. He then decided to enter Campbell Law School, from which he graduated in 1985 after serving as chief justice of the Honor Court.
After eight-plus years in private practice with Dimmock, Reagan, Dodd & Toms, which later became Dimmock & Rader, he was appointed to the District Court bench by Gov. Hunt in 1994. Judge Rader has since prevailed in six elections and has served as chief judge since 2007.
“When I went to work with the firm, we had offices in Raleigh and Cary, because of the real estate boom in Wake County,” Rader said. “At first I was doing primarily real estate to free up the senior partner to do more domestic and civil work.”
“Gradually I moved in to criminal law, which is what I really had an interest in. Mike Dodd was a member of our firm who practiced exclusively criminal law. I learned a great deal from Mike. When I left practice to go on the bench I was probably doing about 75 percent or more criminal work. Most of it was in Wake County and most of it was in District Court.”
Twenty-three years later, Rader is a fixture on the bench and a respected leader and organizer of the 50th anniversary celebration of the District Court system.
“The leadership of Judge Robert Rader in making the 2016 celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the District Court has been truly outstanding,” said Judge McGee, who has chaired the overall celebration process. “Judge Rader’s vision of having a special celebration to honor District Court judges in every judicial district across the state has inspired local bar associations, resulting in almost every district sponsoring their own event.
“Judge Rader’s planning was well organized and thorough – even including a spreadsheet of events with deadlines and individual assignments. He left nothing to chance and followed up with personal assistance at every step of the planning process. The success of the 2016 Celebrate NC Courts events honoring the District Courts was clearly the inspired work of Judge Rader.”